Information bubble

Buzzfeed’s attempt to break the filter bubble

3 minutes to read
Column
Zoë Gielen
08/11/2018

Buzzfeed, the queen of clickbait and useless lists, has taken the lead in attempting to break the filter bubble by introducing a new online feature. To safeguard the online public space, other online platforms should follow suit.

 

Outside your bubble

Buzzfeed is an online news and entertainment platform, mostly known for its ‘clickbaity’ titles, lists and quizzes. However, they also have a news segment, where they share critical opinion pieces and articles. On their website, it says: "Our global, cross-platform network includes our site and mobile apps […]. We strive to connect deeply with our audience, and give them news and entertainment worth sharing with their friends, family, and the people who matter in their lives."

They create content that is worth sharing, because views and clicks are where the money is. It is safe to say that Buzzfeed is not seen as one of the most reliable information sources. A few weeks into February, interestingly enough, Buzzfeed launched a new feature on their platform called ‘Outside Your Bubble’. 

Buzzfeed created this new feature in an attempt to breach the so-called ‘filter bubble’. For those of you who are not familiar with this concept: the filter bubble is the result of the personalization of search engines, social media, ads and other online platforms. Because these platforms are profit driven, the information that you see, will be based on your personal interests and online behaviour.

The pitfall of this system is that you will only be confronted with the things that you already showed interest in. A bubble is formed, that excludes opinions and information outside your own field of concern. For example, the U.S. presidential elections bore all the features of two groups that were isolated in separate bubbles.
 

"Our goal is to give readers a sense of these conversations around an article, and to add a kind of transparency that has been lost in the rise of social-media-driven filter bubbles."

In an attempt to counteract this phenomenon, and presumably work on their reputation as a reliable news source, Buzzfeed introduced the ‘Outside Your Bubble’ feature. The feature appears as a module at the bottom of their most shared and most popular news articles, and contains curated comments from other online platforms. 

The goal is to feature as many different opinions as possible, to create an accurate representation of the public debate, breaking people out from their own social media bubbles. In the announcement of the new experimental feature, editor-in-chief Ben Smith wrote: “Our goal is to give readers a sense of these conversations around an article, and to add a kind of transparency that has been lost in the rise of social-media-driven filter bubbles.” The announcement was met with a predominantly positive response. Some critics do not perceive the filter bubbles as harmful, and some think Buzzfeed is being hypocritical as they profit from clicks and views, contributing to the filter bubbles.

 

Why Buzzfeed's 'Outside your bubble' is good for democracy

Buzzfeed, as one of the most popular online platforms among youngsters, is setting a great example for others with this new feature. With the rise of digitalisation, the public debate has shifted to the online public sphere more and more. But can there still be a fruitful debate when everyone is just yelling into a like-minded void? 

The public sphere should be a space where people can come together to freely discuss societal issues, and influence political action through these discussions. The online public sphere, for many people, is becoming the main space where they gather information and form an opinion. To safeguard the public sphere and the public debate, it is of great importance that there can be a discussion between people with different opinions throughout society. 

When we just shout into our own filter bubble, society will divide and drift more and more apart. Politics will become about clicks, views and likes, distorted by the workings of these profit driven platforms. It may not be perfect yet; Buzzfeed is still a profit-driven platform with an algorythmic structure to generate clicks, likes and thus filter bubbles. However, they are taking their first steps in trying to break these nasty bubbles, to protect our democracy and create a healthy online public debate with more mutual understanding and informed conversation. It will be interesting to see how this feature will develop and transform the debate on controversial topics. I am hopeful that other platforms will follow suit, to create a more transparent and empathic public debate.